The issue of poverty is complicated, oftentimes convoluted, and has an effect in many arenas, including writing about economics and money.
It is important to keep the human interest element in these stories in order to respectfully discuss the role of economics in poverty. If you lose the human interest element, you are doing those experiencing poverty a disservice.
Money and economics are the reason those experiencing poverty are in their situation, but economics cannot be separated from issues such as politics and human rights. Venise Wagner, co-author of “Reporting Inequality: Tools and Methods for Covering Race and Ethnicity,” said she sees all of the issues being connected. Economic issues cannot be completely separated from racial inequality issues.
The components of our society add up to the issue of inequality as a whole. You should not cover poverty without covering the economic and social justice beat at the same time, added Wagner, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University.
Wagner gave an example about home ownership. She said that we know there is a wealth gap, and we know the wealth gap is tied to home ownership. The wealth gap is the systemic problem in the United States of unequal distribution of assets amongst citizens of the country. Home values are often worth less in communities of color than in white neighborhoods. She said economic and racial issues cannot be separated.
“They’re all tied together and I don’t see covering them differently,” she said.
Poverty is a social justice issue just as much as it is an economic and political issue. Co-author Sally Lehrman described these tightly bound issues as “interlocking structures.” She said that often, journalists cover the issue of poverty in one of two ways. They play it as a human interest story or as an economic story for the business beat.
“We often have these two extremes. We rarely bring them together in an individual story, and that’s a real disservice,” said Lehrman, who has covered social issues related to the science beat and is CEO of The Trust Project.
Stories involving poverty should not just be about a single human experience or just about economic policy. Every economic policy and situation has effects on human beings, and the story is incomplete without talking about both, she said.
The authors say it is unfair to those in poverty to not cover the stories from every angle.
“With racial inequality, usually economic inequality is tied into that. The policy that is going to dictate where people are going to be living, for example, also dictates the value of their homes, if they own their homes. Policies end up having racialized outcomes,” said Wagner, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and a previous reporter for both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.
The beats and coverage areas cannot be separated when covering poverty, and humanizing the issue while explaining to readers its economic and political impact is a critical step for credibility when covering poverty today and in the future.
Savannah Ware is a fourth year majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia.
Photojournalists covering poverty face a specific set of challenges and responsibilities. Use these seven tips from photojournalists to focus on the ethics behind your images.
Recognize power dynamics
Photographers’ tools hold gravity and power. To use these tools well and use them in ways that serve the communities you work in, it is important to acknowledge the power and privilege inherent in showing up with a camera.
Photographers need to acknowledge the fact that in many settings covering the topic of poverty, cameras can make people feel uncomfortable or degraded.
Even if photojournalists have no intention of making a photo that would cast someone in a bad light, a power dynamic exists that puts you in charge of that decision, not the people on the other side of your lens.
You decide what the outside world sees of personal lives. That is an enormous amount of power, and it needs to be held delicately.
Independent photojournalist Danielle Villasana suggests leading with the person and making sure that you’re telling the story that they want to tell.
“Make sure that you’re not making any assumptions about who they are, what they go through or what they face,” she said.
Listen to Villasana, whose images have appeared in National Geographic, discuss the importance of covering poverty as photojournalists, stereotypes to avoid, and the work of visual journalists that she admires.
Photographers must realize that the effect of images is separate from the intentions while making and publishing them. It does not matter if you personally extend dignity and respect to every person you photograph; if the published photos feed into stereotypes or fail to honor the people living inside your frames, that is all the world will see.
Photographers cannot control the culture they live in or that there is a stigma around needing assistance with food, housing or clothing. They can, however, control the images they make and share of people living in these situations.
Asumi, left, and Oriana, right, stand in the light of a police car during a nightly patrol in Lima, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Villasana)
Tell the whole story
“Oftentimes in photojournalism, especially when we’re focusing on human rights issues, I believe there is a tendency to focus on only one side of the story, which is oftentimes the most urgent or pressing aspect of an issue, but I strive to tell the whole story so it’s a more balanced narrative and representation of that person. I feel that when stories are told narrowly or only focus on one aspect of the issue, then we run the risk of upholding and maintaining stereotypes,” Villasana said.
When possible, Villasana takes a long-term approach to documentary photojournalism that allows her to fully understand and present complex stories.
New York Times photojournalist Ryan Christopher Jones stressed in a 2020 interview that photojournalists are supposed to photograph reality, even when it is harsh. Photojournalists should not avoid making images of devastation, but they should question how they go about doing so.
“When suffering is coupled with exploitation, those who are photographed are never allowed to live outside of the pain they’re in, because those photos turn a single behavior into an identity that exists in perpetuity,” Jones wrote.
Instead of creating a shock-value image that exploits the humans inside our frames, photographers must work to humanize those affected. They need to employ the patience needed to capture connection, relationships and resilience, even among suffering.
“It is difficult to make sensitive stories, and journalists cannot create redemption. But we can find where it lives and make it louder,” Jones wrote in a 2018 opinion piece.
Look at the coverage that exists and ask questions about it. What is missing from the current body of work? Do you see the humanity of those affected by these issues or just their pain?
Villasana identified one of the goals of her work as “challenging people’s perceptions or misconceptions of issues, people and places.”
Often, the suffering of minority communities is visible and more accessible for journalists, which leads to images of these communities being attached to issues of poverty or suffering. Investigate the places and people these issues affect, especially those that have not been covered in depth before. If you need direction in this area, talk with editors who have knowledge of the community.
Shortly after getting on HIV medication, Tamara is diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Here, a doctor examines a CT scan of her lungs. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Villasana)
Be transparent when you approach people about a photo story on a sensitive topic. Explain the story topic and angle so that sources can determine if they are comfortable being included in the story. Be clear about what you need from them, how much time you expect it to take and what you’re doing to protect them. These steps show respect for sources.
“Transparency and communication are always key,” Villasana explained. “I’m very upfront about what consent actually means.”
When Villasana approaches a potential source for a photo story, she thoroughly explains who she is, what she is doing, where the photos could end up and the possibility of the photos never making it into print. In an effort to provide potential sources with the information needed to consent, Villasana explains the full scope of possibilities, such as images being on display in an exhibit, part of a published book or on the side of a building.
Transparency is an important aspect of communicating to people that you will not exploit them, their pain or their loss.
Broken down, this means finding people who want their story to be told, explaining why their story matters to the public, acting with sensitivity to the situation, and explaining that you are safe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety piece meant sharing precautions you are taking to ensure the safety of sources and respecting additional boundaries each individual may have.
Listen to Villasana discuss evaluating your role and authority as a photographer and storyteller, as well as the importance increasing the diversity of our newsrooms and photojournalism staff, and read the Photo Bill of Rights, an ethical code published in June 2020 as a call to action to “assert the rights of all lens-based workers and define actions that build a safer, healthier, more inclusive, and transparent industry.”
Briss’s room is left in shambles after a fight with her boyfriend, who punched the mirrors and threw furniture. Eighty percent of homicides of trans people worldwide occur in Latin America. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Villasana)
Engage with humans, not props
Jones stressed the importance of “photographing people as people first and not as props to a story.”
In every stage of a story — in pitching, planning, researching, sourcing, photographing, captioning and editing — photographers should engage with people, and their images should show that.
Photograph, plan and edit with intentionality and sensitivity, thinking toward how the end product will affect the public at large and the specific individuals in each frame.
Marie de Jesús, a staff photographer with the Houston Chronicle, said documentary photojournalists must be intentional.
“Documentary photography has to be a conscientious exercise every single time,” de Jesús said.
You can make great photos that are sharp and perfectly composed. But if a photo is not helpful in telling the specific context of the story and pushing the conversation forward, it doesn’t make the cut. If the photo feeds into stereotypes, it doesn’t make the cut. If the image just shows off your photography skills, how great our access was or the advanced equipment you used, it doesn’t make the cut.
Compassionate, humanizing documentary photojournalism is about putting the story and those in it above any personal desire to showcase your access or skill as a photographer.
Be where your lens is
“A big part of my process is simply going up to people and talking to them,” Villasana explained, using her nearly decade-long project working with transgender women in Latin America as an example.
Don’t rush this. Get to know the people that form the pixels on your camera screens. Walk the neighborhoods; meet community leaders; ask people what stories are important here and now.
If nothing else, this will get people accustomed to seeing your cameras. It will allow sources time to trust you and trust that you will use those powerful tools with integrity and sensitivity.
“Trust and communication are aspects of a relationship that should be continuously revisited and built on,” Villasana said. “It’s not something that you gain once and then you’re done. It’s something that’s continuously gained over and over again.”
Lehrman is an award-winning journalist who has covered the science beat, as well as social issues related to that beat. She is also the CEO of The Trust Project, a nonprofit whose goal is to, “amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness so that the public can make informed news choices.”
Wagner is a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and was previously a reporter for both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.
They talked with Covering Poverty’s Savannah Ware about how to use careful word choice and how to visually represent poverty in journalism coverage. Their comments were trimmed for length and clarity.
What are your thoughts on the importance of word choice in this sector of journalism?
Wagner: I think word choice is super important. The thing I tried to avoid is adding a label on a person because I think that is dehumanizing. So for example, I would not say he is a homeless person. He is a person who is experiencing being homelessness. I would try to change that nomenclature. I think emphasizing that they are people, that helps. They’re not labels. I even have a problem with some of the acronyms that are being used right now with people of color like when people say POC. I don’t mind saying the word people of color but when you reduce people to an acronym, it’s so dehumanizing.
Lehrman: This happened in covering things like health. I was early on in the coverage of AIDS. We talked about people with AIDS, not AIDS victims or patients.
What are your thoughts on terms such as homelessness versus houselessness?
Lehrman: It makes you think a lot about: What is a home? You can definitely make a home on your own but at the same time there are certain external factors that enable you to make that home. Maybe there are other terms that we need to come up with. I think there’s an idea about trying to empower people, but at the same time there’s these external factors and institutions that are shaping our lives that are often based on geography, gender, and so on that we really want people to understand and think about.
What are your thoughts on photojournalism in this sector of journalism? Should people experiencing homelessness be pictured at all?
Lehrman: I’m thinking of a story we used in one of our workshops where there was an image of a man in a tent, he was formerly a sommelier, and he had a bottle of wine on the table, we don’t know why. We don’t know anything more than it was sitting on the table. People went right to, “Oh it’s his fault. Clearly his homelessness is his fault.” Be really careful about what is being communicated in that photo that you may not even be thinking about. I don’t know if we always apply the same level of scrutiny to our photographs as we do to our stories. What kind of things are there that your audiences may pick up on and attach to their existing stereotypes or their existing ways of thinking and models?
Wagner: I think the key here is making sure you don’t replicate stereotypes, but that’s tricky. For example, here in the Bay area African Americans are more likely to be homeless than whites or Latinos, but the pictures that you see often are not of African Americans and so you kind of get this sense that the problem of homelessness does not hit one community more than the other. At the same time there’s concern that you don’t want to stigmatize an entire race of people. How do you deal with that? You have to be really careful about what the photo is communicating. Is it perpetuating a stereotype? Photos can’t stand alone. The photos are part of the story, which hopefully is explaining why what’s happening is happening in the photo.
Lehrman: If there were primarily African Americans being depicted in these photos about people who are experiencing homelessness, that’s fine if the story is actually explaining why that predominance is happening.
Wagner: You want to get the context. It just points again toward making sure that those photos can’t be used to perpetuate stereotypes and also don’t trigger implicit stereotypes.
Lehrman: Photographers can’t be passive in taking their photos. They have to be active reporters taking those photos, asking those questions why.
Savannah Ware is a fourth year majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia.
Local, regional and national reporters have had to adapt their storytelling, sourcing and safety because of the worldwide effects of COVID-19.
Notably, the economic effects of the pandemic since it reached the U.S. in early 2020 have resulted in massive layoffs across newsrooms. In April 2020, The New York Times reported an estimated 36,000 employees of news media companies had been laid off, furloughed or received pay cuts, including major corporations such as Gannett, Slate and Tribune Publishing. Poynter has also tracked layoffs, print suspensions, pay cuts and closures since April among small and medium newsrooms across the country.
As a result, many newsrooms have transitioned to digital formats and local reporters — including student-led newsrooms — have taken the lead in COVID-19 reporting for their communities. The spectrum of storytelling has expanded in tandem with major realizations about economic inequality and social disparities in the United States.
Vianna Davila, reporter with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative, authored a guide for reporters on covering homelessness specifically during the pandemic. Davila works within a poverty and homelessness beat. She encourages journalists to ask questions about outreach, Homeless Point in Time (PIT) counts and housing efforts, for example, in their own communities and learn relevant terms. Davila also makes a note about visibility.
“COVID-19 may result in homeless people becoming more visible,” Davila wrote in the presentation, posted by the National Press Foundation. “It doesn’t mean there’s a sudden increase in homelessness in a community … but, be mindful, that this situation could eventually result in more people being homeless.”
The “Broke in Philly” collaborative reporting project is an example of a regional approach to information gathering. Emphasizing reporting about poverty and economic mobility in Philadelphia, 19 news organizations are part of this collaborative where reporting is collectively presented on the “Broke in Philly” webpage.
Topics range from health and finance to housing and education, and there are bilingual media outlets involved. The reporting produced within this project has been important in starting conversations about the intersections of COVID-19 with food insecurity, environmental vulnerability and access to health care among Philadelphia’s at-risk communities.
Efforts like this show how journalists have adapted to covering poverty during a pandemic. The Pulitzer Center held a discussion on “Reporting on Disparities Across Vulnerable Communities During COVID-19” with three Pulitzer grantees who produced stories from within this focus point. They all had something to say about how safety concerns changed their approach to the reporting process, and how their approaches had to change as circumstances evolved.
Claire Napier Galoforo discussed her story for the Associated Press on the rural town of Dawson, Georgia, where she focussed on the impact of COVID-19 on a predominantly impoverished, Black community without affordable and accessible health care.
“It is a very careful calculation of risk and work. What value can we get in the field that we could not get over the phone?” Galoforo said during a Q&A segment. “Of course our worst fear is to go into a marginalized community and make things worse … I think that it’s something that we as an industry are going to be facing for a really long time as this virus continues to spread and continues to surge.”
Reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aisha Sultan, discussed her story on a single-mother in St. Louis, who in addition to experiencing poverty during the pandemic, had to home-school her kids in a dangerous neighborhood. She argued that the ability to connect virtually with people rather than relying on sporadic visits was helpful in her storytelling process.
“As a reporter, you need to be able to see certain things. I’ve asked Tyra to take me on a tour of the house on FaceTime,” Sultan said during a Q&A segment. “What ends up developing is a relationship that feels more intimate than me just showing up and then going away and then showing back up.”
Both reporters had to problem-solve and calculate risks when it came to reporting on these complex stories. This isn’t a new phenomena, but it’s especially relevant when stories depend on in-depth reporting and developing relationships with sources who might not have access to life-saving resources. When it comes to working with people experiencing homelessness or poverty, reporters have had to grapple with all of this.
A reporter in Jackson, Mississippi, Anna Wolfe, won a National Press Foundation award for her story and photo essay “Are the kids alright?” emphasizing the experiences of families and children adapting to an upended public education system. In a city with a 27% poverty rate — according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and where Wolfe reports four in 10 children live in poverty, Wolfe’s story analyzes how the pandemic exacerbated an already dire problem.
Wolfe was one of the first reporters to receive the NPF’s new Poverty and Inequality award for reporting on children in poverty in the U.S. But where Wolfe’s story focussed on inequality, it also presented solutions being led by people in the Jackson, Mississippi, community.
As important as reporting on empirical data has been to the public’s understanding of how this pandemic affects people living in poverty — daily case numbers and tracking federal funding comes to mind — this shift toward solutions journalism in many newsrooms has been just as essential in order to show community responses in a larger context.
The Solutions Journalism Network is a nonprofit organization that emphasizes resources to help reporters cover stories from a solutions journalism perspective. Through the solutions journalism “Story Tracker,” reporting can be narrowed down by issue areas, location of response and media type, among others.
COVID-19 reporting has its own place on this website, highlighting stories about a “Racial Equity Rapid Response Team” in Chicago and food banks in Minnesota that switched to a delivery model to address food insecurity in rural and suburban communities. In an article published by the International Center for Journalists in discussion with Linda Shaw, editorial director at the SJN, this kind of “evidence-based reporting” on responses to local and regional problems is suggested as “essential” for communities to learn from one another.
Sofia Gratas graduated in fall 2020 with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
The intersection between poverty and other coverage areas requires research and analysis. Use these best practices and steps to get started.
What to look for
Log in to one of our suggested databases. Look for data such as average median income, the percentage of people on SNAP benefits, or other statistics that can give you an idea of how many people live in poverty in your county.
Research housing costs and compare that to median annual income.
Look at Medicaid recipients in your county and take note of documented health crises.
Compare high school dropout rates across different neighborhoods and schools. Start making connections and noticing possible trends.
Ask questions about affordable housing, demand for services like food banks or nonprofit community organizations that help impoverished people.
Become familiar with local statistics, and compare those with observations and personal experiences.
What to ask
Answers to the questions below might help you determine what needs the most coverage in your community and what you need to know before diving in.
According to the U.S. Census, what is the poverty rate in your county? When was that statistic last updated?
How many people are unemployed in your county?
How many jobs have been lost in your county over the past year? What about the past five years?
What are legislators doing to fight or support existing problems regarding poverty, including addressing homelessness, crime and mass incarceration, affordable housing, etc.?
How does your county’s foreclosure rate differ from neighboring counties, and why?
How are resources allocated across schools in your county?
What is being done in your county’s education system to close any achievement gaps, reduce drop-out rates, etc?
Is government-subsidized housing meeting the needs of your county?
What forms of affordable healthcare are available in your community? What percent of women, men and children in your county qualify for Medicaid or other affordable healthcare programs?
What percent of adults in your county are uninsured?
What percent of students are on free/reduced lunch in elementary school and continue this service in middle and high school?
What do public health nurses identify as the major health concerns for low-income women, men and children in your county?
What’s being done to help people coming out of prison into jobs? Are inmates able to get an education in prison?
What legal assistance is available to people in poverty?
How many physicians or healthcare facilities will treat uninsured patients?
Is specialized medical care provided by the public health department? If applicable, have individual, low-income patients been adversely affected by limited access to specialized care?
What is the history and intersection of racial and poverty discrimination in the area, and why do these conditions continue to exist? Who is fighting them?
What is the maternal and infant mortality rate in your county?
Do students at schools with high levels of poverty (majority on free/reduced lunch) perform similarly to students at schools with lower levels of poverty on the CRCT, end of year, and/or graduation tests?
Do any resources in your county bar LGBTQ+ individuals from seeking assistance?
As with any story, you’ll need to:
Consult secondary sources
Locate key documents
Observe the story in play
Sofia Gratas graduated in fall 2020 with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
READING “How Photography Exploits the Vulnerable” Ryan Christopher Jones, a photographer with The New York Times, discusses in a 2018 op-ed how photojournalists should balance the “responsibility to portray the visceral realities of an often devastating world” and the simultaneous responsibility to photograph with respect to the humanity of the people photographers cover.
“Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right” A guide compiled by Denise-Marie Ordway and Heather Bryant, two journalists who grew up in poverty themselves, outlines common mistakes journalists make when covering poverty and related issues and offers ways to avoid committing those problematic reporting practices.
“Reporting Inequality” Sally Lehrman and Venise Wagner’s guide aims to equip journalists to cover the complex issues surrounding racial and social inequalities. This book provides straightforward, practical strategies for reporters to use in the field to investigate the root causes of inequality and report more comprehensively. Read our interview with the authors.
In this podcast, journalists Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone talk about how they covered poverty in the preceding episodes of the series and walk through various pitfalls to avoid. Authors and other experts are interviewed to provide alternatives to avoid these insensitive or incorrect mistakes.
ON POVERTY AS A TOPIC
VIEWING “Why Poverty?” This PBS Peabody Award-winning documentary series explores global, international poverty. Eight full-length documentaries and several shorter episodes look for answers to questions like “can a good education provide an escape from poverty?” and “how have attitudes to poverty changed over the ages?”
“Four Reasons To Include Race in America’s Poverty Discussion” In a video presentation by Alan Jenkins and written discussion by Katie Le Dain, The Aspen Institute provides context to the links between race and poverty in the U.S. Common misconceptions are brought to light and presenters introduce reasons for why conversations around poverty should not shy away from race.
“Growing Up Poor in America” PBS Frontline’s 2020 documentary follows three children and their families to share their experiences fighting to stay afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies existing challenges. In the political battleground state of Ohio during a pivotal presidential election year, hopes and fears for the future are shared from a child’s perspective.
LISTENING “View from Room 205” This 2017 radio series from WBEZ in Chicago includes illustrations, photographs and long-form written stories, organized into chapters. The piece as a whole investigates whether public schools can make the American Dream a reality for children who live in poverty. The story focuses on 30 fourth graders and their intimate experience with the intersection of poverty and education on Chicago’s West Side.
“Toxic Stress – Poverty and Health” On Latino USA’s podcast, Daisy Rosario speaks with doctors and researchers about how excess levels of stress, often due to experiences related to poverty, can change brain psychology and affect life course trajectory.
READING “In Plain Sight” NBC News’ Peabody award winning series investigates a diverse range of content related to trends and impacts of poverty across the U.S. Each story dives into a particular newsworthy policy or aspect that relates to poverty and covers that in detail.
“$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” This narrative by researchers H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin follows several U.S. families who live in extreme poverty and investigates how they survive on less than $2 per day, and readers are transported into the everyday lives of each family. The 2016 narrative novel is a product of years of ethnographic research learning how these families reached an extreme level of poverty and the survival strategies they have adapted, including a discussion of policies that impact their specific situations.
“Understanding Poverty” Composed of essays compiled by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Benabou and Dilip Mookherjee from 34 leading economists focused on the most valuable key points from their research on poverty, this 2016 collection covers a large range of relevant topics. Some essay topics include the empirical measurement of poverty, the impact of colonialism on enduring contemporary poverty, the future of micro-credit, child labor and gaps for future research.
“The Working Poor: Invisible in America” In his narrative, David Shipler, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, presents personal stories of working people living in poverty. Combined with statistics, these accounts identify and describe interconnected obstacles to climbing the socioeconomic ladder.
“Nickel and Dimed” Barbara Ehrenreich’s narrative describes her time as an undercover journalist working minimum-wage jobs around the U.S. while on a mission to determine if landing a job is truly a surefire way to prosperity.
“Evicted” This Pulitzer Prize winning narrative follows eight families in Milwaukee as they fight to keep consistent housing. Author Matthew Desmond provides an in-depth look at poverty and economic exploitation alongside scenes of hope and ideas for solving these deeply rooted issues.
“Heartland” Sarah Smarsh’s memoir of her childhood growing up as a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer brings insight into life for working class Americans in the midwest. Through personal narrative from her own memories and impactful analysis and cultural commentary, Smarch investigates the class divide in the U.S.
“The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” Mehrsa Baradaran’s 2017 nonfiction work explores the persistence of the racial wealth gap in the United States and provides insight into Black banks. Baradaran presents research that shows how institutions like housing segregation, racism and Jim Crow credit policies that prevent Black communities from accumulating wealth in a segregated economy.
Taylor Gerlach is a fourth year majoring in journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia.
This tip sheet serves as a tool for journalists to use while pitching, writing, producing and editing stories on poverty. While this list doesn’t include every aspect of the subject, it can help you brainstorm how to approach your next story. Here are 10 best practices for covering poverty:
Get the data and find key documents.
Develop your story from statistics. Gather key documents and data, then connect the numbers to a socioeconomic characteristic related to your beat or a timely issue. After that, compare state and national statistics to what you find to put your story into a greater context.
You can find even more essential data sets here. The facts you find can reveal gaps in the community you’re covering. From there, it’s your job to illustrate those gaps in your storytelling.
To start, look at the level of federal funding intended to boost a community’s economy. You can find that information on Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov. Also, research how a county is allocating stimulus funds on ProPublica. It’s important to follow the flow of money from the government to agencies, trickling down to businesses and consumers.
Commit to thorough sourcing.
Interview local experts about how poverty affects their community. Think big picture. Ask questions that speak to how the income divide can affect multiple areas of a person’s life.
After you interview the experts, get to know the people who are experiencing the topic you’re covering. If people are willing to speak with you, find out about the community they live in, figure out the cost of their average expenses and how their environment affects their standard of living. Talking to real people will bring your data to life.
Localize your angle.
If you aren’t covering poverty in your own community, find reporters who live in that area and use them as a source for gaining a deeper understanding of public opinion within that community.
It is important for audiences to understand poverty is happening where they live, not just in other parts of the country.
While national politics can feel distant to audiences, local politics focuses on how resources can be delivered and distributed within a community. The poverty rate of a community directly impacts local government services such as the police, schools, hospitals and any other form of social services.
Understand the terminology.
Learn how to speak the language. Poverty is relevant to several beats. Become an expert on your beat to understand its relationship with poverty. For example, government spending involves complicated language. You have to know the difference between funds that are “awarded” vs. funds that are “allocated,” or what a “cost-plus contract” is. If you don’t know what these terms mean, then you won’t be able to understand the impact they may have on communities below the poverty line.
Understanding terminology is the first step to asking the right questions, especially when you’re interviewing local experts. Communicate in the expert’s language, so they can give you feedback in the appropriate context.
Narrow your focus.
Poverty is a complex issue. Reporters can’t cover every element of poverty in one story. Find one or two specific areas to focus on and commit to in-depth reporting. Here’s Yale School of Medicine Science Writer, Kathleen Raven, explaining how she approached reporting a story on a healthcare clinic in Greene County, Georgia:
Studies have proven that there is a connection between poverty, crime and mass incarceration, education, health and other regularly-covered beats. Find ways to incorporate poverty-related narratives into other beats rather than covering these stories by themselves.
This enables reporters to provide in-depth coverage on poverty within a specific topic area while still remaining holistic in their overall approach. Journalists don’t have to narrow their poverty coverage to specific beats, but it is a helpful tool to stay concise in their reporting.
Incorporate multimedia elements.
If you’re writing a written article, take your reporting to another level by adding multimedia elements. Create a story where your readers can not only read about poverty, but give them an opportunity to see and hear what poverty feels like through photos, graphics, video and audio components.
Read this Chattanooga Times Free Press series on poverty called “The Poverty Puzzle.” Notice how the stories are full of photos, infographics and data visualizations that explain what’s happening beyond the words written on the page. Using multimedia elements allows the audience to connect with what’s happening in a story and makes their experience more tangible.
Connect the dots.
While reporting on poverty, it’s easy to fall into the habit of reporting facts without pulling all the pieces together. Focus on relating public support to policy initiatives that could impact low income residents. This will demonstrate a direct connection on how the public affects poverty, positively or negatively, by their actions.
One of your responsibilities as a reporter is to separate persistent poverty, which is experienced over a longer period of time, and episodic poverty that is onset by temporary economic downturns. By outlining poverty’s many shapes, its past forms and its future trajectory helps audiences understand how it permeates into many aspects of life.
Time it up.
Like all news, no matter the topic, newsworthiness shapes the public’s perception on an issue. When people are experiencing a collective worry about the economy and community welfare, people’s attention is more receptive to reading on topics. The timing and significance of poverty is determined by the overall state of the economy. Concern about how families are faring during these times of uncertainty is on the minds of the public.
When timing is off for an article, it dispels a feeling of urgency and breeds complacency in an audience. Reporters can help facilitate change by giving voice to issues and raising questions that other people may be too afraid to address.
Widen your audience.
Audiences are drawn to stories they can relate to. People experiencing poverty is a small part of the audience you should be trying to reach. Stories on poverty should be relevant to everyone.
“Readers who are not poor can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
Income and class will continue to influence both local and national politics in America.
Adding solutions to a story can take many forms, such as including links to resources, contact information of the sources included in the piece, highlighting ways people can become involved and including information about upcoming events. From analyzing data to sharing solutions journalists have an opportunity to make an impact through their reporting on poverty. Allow these tips to guide you into creating quality content that is relevant to your audience and accurately conveys how poverty affects your community.
Kelsey Coffey and Lillie Beck graduated in fall 2020 with journalism degrees from the University of Georgia.
Here are key definitions, facts and figures to orient yourself in poverty journalism.
Why should journalists cover poverty?
People experiencing poverty have death rates twice the ratio found for people living on incomes above the poverty level.
Racial minorities experience poverty and economic disenfranchisement at a higher rate than white people.
Poverty affects a community’s potential for economic development,.
Racial minority students living in poverty are less likely to earn a high school diploma or attend college than white students.
People living in poverty are disproportionately exposed to violent crime and traumatic injuries.
Earning an income below the poverty level puts individuals at a higher risk for developing chronic diseases.
How is poverty calculated?
According to the United States Census Bureau, the poverty threshold is defined as “the dollar amounts used to determine poverty status,” which is adjusted for inflation every year. Poverty thresholds are the same throughout the United States and do not vary by state or county. Thresholds do vary by the specific family sizes and the ages of those in the family unit.
The Census Bureau states, “incomes of all related family members that live together are added up to determine poverty status.” Once a family’s income is determined to be less than the poverty threshold for that family, everyone in that family unit is considered living in poverty. Poverty status cannot be determined for those in jail, children under 15 in foster care, or people living in nursing homes, college dormitories, military barracks or unconventional housing.
The Census Bureau uses several factors to determine if an income is within poverty status. These factors include earnings, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, social security, supplemental security income, public assistance, veterans’ payments, child support and many other factors. For a complete list of these factors, visit the Census Bureau’s website.
Top myths about poverty
Myth 1: People living in poverty are fully to blame or have no responsibility.
Both are wrong because many factors are beyond their control.
Myth 2: Poverty is a permanent condition.
It is not. Jobs, government assistance and global economic trends can influence a person’s economic status from one month to the next.
Myth 3: Most people living in poverty don’t work. If someone has full-employment, they aren’t living in poverty.
Incorrect. Actually, many people living in poverty do have jobs. People can work multiple minimum-wage jobs and still not make enough to be above the poverty threshold.
The word “full-employment” implies comfort, but the lack of a living wage and inadequate health care coverage leads to many fully employed people continuing to live in poverty.
Myth 4: People who are experiencing poverty are more inclined to have a certain set of stereotypical values, political beliefs and education.
Poverty casts a wide net and affects people from all walks of life. It’s impossible to know if someone is living in poverty without knowing their specific, personal financial situation.
Lillie Beck graduated with a journalism degree in fall 2020 from the University of Georgia.
To see why covering poverty is so important, check out this video:
As a reporter, one of the greatest challenges you may experience is learning how to write across societal differences. Journalists must stick to the facts while still capturing nuance when covering poverty. They have to prevent their biases from interfering with the story.
Moni Basu, an award-winning journalist, first came across this challenge over 30 years ago as a reporter in Tallahassee, Florida, when she wrote a story on inmates who couldn’t afford lawyers on death row. This became the first of many stories she wrote on people who experience poverty around the world.
Basu says that story taught her how to set aside her own biases, because the inmates she was interviewing lived a life that was completely different from her personal life experiences.
The article profiled a woman named Amina who provided domestic help for Basu’s family from 1998 to 2001.
Throughout the story, Basu paints a picture about the growing income gap in her homeland. “In India,” she writes, “the wealth of 16 people is equal to the wealth of 600 million people.”
In the CNN article, Basu recounts taking Amina to one of India’s most upscale shopping malls in Kolkata, Quest Mall.
In the article, she reported that it would have taken Amina almost 25 years to earn enough money to purchase a Michael Kors handbag she saw at the mall that was worth almost $2,000.
“It was like a magical world to her,” she said.
Basu never saw Amina again after their trip to Quest Mall in 2015. The slum she lived in was bulldozed to make room for a new high-rise where flats could sell for approximately $150,000 or more.
Telling stories about people who experience poverty can be difficult. Basu says that one of the most valuable techniques a reporter can use to successfully write across difference is to educate themselves on the communities they cover.
Leave your bias at the door.
The best way to confront your biases is to assume a position of humility.
Throughout her career for media outlets including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN, she has discovered that it’s OK to plead ignorance. Call someone in the community before you visit and admit to them that you may not know what it’s like to be a part of that community or that you may not have a full picture of poverty in that area, but you’re willing to learn.
Observe, observe, observe.
Basu, the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer for Narrative Nonfiction in the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, advises journalists to find the most popular coffee shop or restaurant in the community they’re covering and go observe. Find out who the regulars are. What are people chatting about at the tables around you? Do all of those people have something in common?
She also says that reporters should visit a local place of worship to find out where people are seeking hope and guidance. It’s the small details about the everyday life of a community that will help add context to a story.
Be sensitive to trauma.
Basu explains that families who experience poverty often experience trauma. The National Education Association reports that between 50 to 80 percent of students living in poverty have been traumatized.
Basu warns reporters to be sensitive to the trauma people may have suffered and not treat their sources like victims. Instead, reporters should carefully consider how they frame questions and remember that no one wants to be subject to these types of stories.
She said, “Be sensitive to the fact that everyone has pride and no one wants to be seen beneath dignity. Treat them with the dignity they deserve.”
Interview an elderly person.
Basu also encourages reporters to find the pillars of the community they’re covering, because those are the people who have lived in that area the longest.
A person who has lived a long time and spent decades in the same community can help you layer your story with historical context related to socioeconomics and poverty.
Listen first, write later.
Listening is the key to capturing the nuance of poverty in a story.
Basu says this type of reporting leads journalists to write stories that only depict black and white, but the reality is that poverty is many shades of gray.
People who are experiencing poverty often don’t have a voice. When you have the opportunity to hear from them, listen to what they’re saying, put it into context, collect valuable data and write your story based on what you find.
Kelsey Coffey graduated in fall 2020 with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.